Bagley Wright was a Seattle philanthropist, businessman, and civic leader. Wright's deft business skills, strongly held artistic preferences, deep financial means, and equally deep commitment to his community resulted in a life spent leading and goading Seattle's arts community toward excellence and fiscal prudence. Among his many contributions to Seattle's cultural development over more than five decades was the astute and active leadership he provided to Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Art Museum, and Seattle Symphony. Together with his wife, Virginia Wright, and prompted by her lifelong passion for post-war and contemporary art, Bagley Wright assembled one of the most important private collections of such art in the country, with the specific goal of giving this bounty to Seattle citizens.
Charles Bagley Wright Jr. was born in Marietta, Georgia, on April 13, 1924. His parents were Christine Blair Wright (b. 1902) and Charles Bagley Wright (1898-1963), a mill owner whose business failed with the 1929 stock market crash. The family moved to Great Neck, Long Island, where Bagley Wright Sr. went to work for textile firm Cannon Mills, becoming a vice-president in 1946. A younger brother, Dan, was born ca. 1932, and by 1940 the family was living in Manhasset, Long Island.
Young Bagley Wright attended boarding school at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, then college at Princeton University, graduating in 1946 with a B.A. in English. Service in the United States Army followed.
In 1950, Bagley Wright moved to New York City, where he pursued the craft of fiction writing, eventually finding work as a journalist for the New York Mirror, where he progressed from copy editor, to editor of the Long Island section, to editor of the Sunday edition. Wright described the Mirror as "raffish ... the last of the spit-on-the-floor newspapers" (The Seattle Times, April 20, 1981). He subsequently became an editorial assistant at Newsweek, which he later called "boring drudgery [but] ... not a total waste, however. In the course of covering business news I met a wide range of business types: tycoons, corporate executives, successful promoters. I found none of them dauntingly knowledgeable or competent, and took it as a hint that my future might lie outside journalism" ("Our Lives As Collectors," p. 13).
Bagley and Virginia Wright
In 1951, Bagley Wright met Virginia Prentice Bloedel (1929-2020), daughter of Prentice (1900-1996) and Virginia Merrill Bloedel (1902-1989), who was working at one of New York's most exciting crossroads of contemporary art, the Sidney Janis Gallery. "She was enchanting," Bagley Wright told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer decades later (March 5, 1996). The Bloedel family owned the lumber firm of Bloedel, Stuart and Welch, which, through mergers, became the major Canadian lumber company MacMillan Bloedel, Ltd. The firm became one of the largest suppliers of lumber and newspaper to the United States. Her maternal grandfather, Richard Dwight Merrill (b.1869), was also a timber baron. Born in Seattle, Virginia grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, and graduated from Barnard College with a degree in art history.
The couple married in Seattle's St. Mark's Cathedral on August 29, 1953, returning to New York afterward to begin their married life. Twins Merrill Blair Wright (a girl) and Charles Bagley Wright III, born on September 21, 1954, doubled the family size. A second daughter, Robin McKenzie Wright, was born on November 9, 1955, and another son, Prentice Bloedel Wright (called Bing), on January 17, 1958.
The young family relocated to Seattle in 1955. Bagley and Virginia Wright quickly became active in Seattle's social and cultural scene. The marriage would be a partnership that blended family, business, and more than half a century spent joyfully collecting post-war art together.
Bagley Wright's initial plan after the move to Seattle was to continue his journalism career. Instead, he became a real-estate developer. His first partner in this venture was Seattle attorney Stimson Bullitt (1919-2009), member of a notable Seattle family founded on timber interests and later the KING broadcasting network, who became a close friend. Their business, Antero Co., developed the Logan Building in downtown Seattle. Antero Co. eventually merged with King Broadcasting, with Wright remaining a director. Other real-estate partnerships over the years developed the Space Needle and Bank of California (also known as the 901 Fifth Avenue Building), and Harbor Properties (also with Stimson Bullitt), among other projects.
Decades after making his start in Seattle's business community, Bagley Wright told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "People thought my wife's family got me started, but in fact I had a little money of my own. And you didn't need much in those days. I learned by making mistakes, but my mistakes weren't too bad. ... Business was a good way for me to express my competitive nature" (October 8, 1983).
In 1961, Seattle Mayor Gordon Clinton (b. 1920) appointed Wright to the Seattle City Planning Commission. He served on the commission until 1966.
Among Bagley Wright's other major business achievements was early investment support and chairmanship of Redmond-based Physio-Control, Inc., maker of LIFEPAK. The global leader in defibrillator technology, Physio-Control, Inc. developed the world's first portable defibrillator/monitor capable of transmitting the patient's electrocardiogram signals by telephone, a crucial advance in emergency medicine technology. The company was sold to pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly in 1980, and is now (2011) part of Minneapolis-based Medtronic Emergency Response Systems.
Other investments included the brokerage firm of Ragen Mackenzie, and the full service regional brokerage and investment advice firm McAdams Wright Ragen. Wright served on the board of McMillan-Bloedel Co., a paper-producer whose origins were in the United States and Canadian mills founded by Virginia Wright's grandfather, J. H. Bloedel, and headed by her father, Prentice Bloedel.
In 1959, while the upcoming 1962 Seattle World's Fair (Century 21 Exposition) was in the planning stages, World's Fair Commission chairman Edward Carlson (1911-1990) conceived the idea that the fair should have a signature structure -- like the Eiffel Tower, built for Paris's 1889 Universal Exposition -- that would symbolize the fair and its city.
The plan nearly died for lack of funding, but Bagley Wright, happening upon the design for what had by then been dubbed the Space Needle in the office of Seattle architect John Graham Jr. (1908-1991), took on the project. With Alaska Steamship president Ned Skinner (1920-1988); Weyerhaeuser Corporation president Norton Clapp (1906-1995); Howard S. Wright (1927-1996), president of the eponymous construction company (and no relation to Bagley); and Graham, Bagley Wright formed Pentagram Corporation, a private company, and built the Space Needle. Bagley Wright was the Space Needle's first president.
The 605-foot structure captured the world's attention, becoming an instant icon of the Seattle World's Fair, and of the city of Seattle, attracting 2.3 million visitors during the six-month exposition and maintaining its popularity thereafter. Bagley Wright sold his interest in Pentagram in 1977. Eventually the sole surviving member of Pentagram, Bagley Wright was an honored guest at the April 17, 2011, ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Needle's ground-breaking.
After the World's Fair closed on October 21, 1962, Bagley Wright was one of nine civic leaders tapped to serve as officers of Century 21 Center, Inc., the organization formed to develop the fair's site, Seattle Center. Wright was vice-president for performing arts, and it was in this capacity that he began searching for a way to fill the former World's Fair Playhouse. Wright, in partnership with the Seattle arts advocacy group Allied Arts, set about establishing a year-round professional theater company, both to capitalize on the fervor for performing arts that had arisen in Seattle during the fair, and to utilize the Playhouse.
Seattle Repertory Theatre opened its first production, King Lear, on September 13, 1963. Bagley Wright was the Rep's first president, serving from 1963-1970. Wright's guidance and financial support (he guaranteed and collateralized the company's debt during its early years, for example) was crucial to the Rep's ability to grow. The organization steadily built a subscription audience, community support, and positive attention from theater critics, becoming a highly respected American regional theater. In 1990, Seattle Rep was honored with the Tony award for Outstanding Regional Theatre, the most prestigious award a regional theater can receive.
In 1983, Seattle Rep relocated from the World's Fair Playhouse (now Intiman Theatre) to a new 842-seat performance venue still on Seattle Center grounds. Ten anonymous donors each contributed $1 million to ensure that the new building was named the Bagley Wright Theatre. In 1996, the Rep added a second venue, the 282-seat Leo Kreielsheimier ("Leo K.") Theatre.
Bagley Wright's long tenure as one of Seattle Repertory's most stalwart supporters meant that he eventually watched the organization develop a crop of new young followers for whom the name "Bagley Wright" signified a performance venue rather than a person. In a 2010 interview, Wright recounted that at a Seattle Rep performance he had recently attended, a pair of youthful theatergoers struck up a conversation with him during intermission. "So," Wright recalled one of them asking him, "do you like theater?" (Becker/Stein interview).
Seattle Art Museum
Wright joined the board of the Seattle Art Museum in 1972, serving as president from 1977-1980 and as its acting director from 1979-1980. Virginia Wright joined SAM's board in 1960, resigned during her husband's tenure and then rejoined in 1982. She remains an active board member.
Over the course of Wright's life, Bagley and Virginia Wright's entire art collection -- the largest single collection of modern and contemporary art in the region -- was gradually donated (and the balance of the collection promised) to the Seattle Art Museum.
In addition to this joint donation, Bagley Wright worked with a curator at Seattle Art Museum to build an important collection of Japanese textiles for the museum's collection.
Mimi Gates (b. ca. 1943), Seattle Art Museum's director from May 1994 to July 2009, told Puget Sound Business Journal, "The entire time I was at SAM, he was supportive, not just in the financial sense. He and Jinny were always there for me. Urging me on. Encouraging me that what I was doing was right. He was involved in the move of SAM, the expansion of SAM, and in the creation of the Sculpture Park" (July 19, 2011).
Seattle Post-Intelligencer art critic Regina Hackett noted in 1999, "Art institutions often showcase private collections, partially in hopes of securing them. SAM doesn't have to play that game. The Wrights are committed to leaving the collection to the museum and have given major pieces already" (March 4, 1999). In the same article, Hackett summed up Bagley and Virginia Wright's philosophy as art collectors: "First, they collect the art when it's current. Most of the work they own was acquired in the year it was produced. They don't return years later to pay enormous sums for art that history has validated, something Bagley Wright calls 'trophy hunting.' Second, they collect intuitively. They have no master plan but respond to what moves them. Third, they buy art as they do everything else, with the ultimate goal of making a public contribution."
Bagley and Virginia Wright also spearheaded both of Seattle Art Museum's expansions: the construction and move to a new museum building in downtown Seattle in 1991, and the creation of the Olympic Sculpture Park in 2007.
What He Liked
In 1975, Virginia and Bagley Wright helped found and fund the Washington Art Consortium, an educational cooperative of seven arts institutions (Henry Art Gallery and Seattle Art Museum in Seattle, Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane, Tacoma Art Museum, Museum of Art at Washington State University in Pullman, and Whatcom Museum of History and Art and Western Gallery at Western Washington University in Bellingham). Sharing acquisitions and jointly owning certain collections exposes the art to a much wider audience than would be the case if pieces were held by a single institution.
In 1993, Bagley and Virginia Wright were among the first donors to the Seattle Symphony's drive to fund and build Benaroya Hall. Bagley Wright chaired the first phase of the capital campaign that raised $100 million for construction. While admitting that the Seattle Symphony had never been one of his main interests, Wright explained, "I thought I could raise some money by bringing some planning into the situation. ... The useful role I played here was that I'd raised money for several organizations here and I knew the old crowd. ... It turned out that in the Phase I funding, the big money came pretty much from the old sources that had been supporting things all along" (Gouldthorpe, p. 59). Under Wright's leadership, Phase I raised $50.87 million in private funds and $53.87 in public funds -- the most money raised to date by a cultural organization in the state. Bagley and Virginia Wright also commissioned and donated a massive (45-by-12 foot) Robert Rauschenberg artwork to hang in Benaroya Hall's Grand Lobby.
Bagley Wright's extensive gifts of time and funds over his decades in Seattle sometimes prompted speculation among the press about the possible motives behind his generosity. Wright responded in a 1982 interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "I didn't have any higher purpose. I got involved in what I liked" (January 3, 1982).
In 1975, Wright was a founding investor in The Weekly, a Seattle journal of news and culture. Publisher David Brewster recalled Wright as an "indispensable mentor. ... I learned just how good he was at guiding creative business. ... Mostly, he liked business, and he had a fine feel for timing, for balancing debt and equity, and for sticking to your basic goals. 'Don't get daunted!,' he would tell me" ("Dear Old, Irascible Bagley Wright").
Growing up Wright
Being a child of Bagley and Virginia Wright's meant that even your play equipment resonated with artistic significance. In 1965, Bagley and Virginia Wright commissioned New York sculptor Mark di Suvero (b. 1933) to do a piece for the slope behind their Washington Park home. The work was intended to be used as an outdoor play structure for the Wright's children and so had to be, as Seattle Magazine explained, "both grand and thoroughly safe" (November 1965). Di Suvero, who lived in the Wright's house while creating the piece, told the magazine, "Good art's insane."
The piece, Bunyon's Chess, was di Suvero's first private commission. When Seattle Art Museum created the Olympic Sculpture Garden in 2007, Bunyon's Chess was installed there, along with a 1992 di Suvero work, Schubert Sonata. (The Wrights also donated works by Elsworth Kelly, Tony Smith, Anthony Caroo, and Roxy Paine to the Olympic Sculpture Park.)
In the late 1970s, the Wrights hired Canadian architect Arthur Erickson (1924-2009) to design a home for them in Seattle's exclusive Highlands neighborhood. The house was designed as a gallery, with walls large enough to hold some of the largest of the family's artworks.
Merrill Wright told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that, growing up, she experienced her parents' art collection almost as another sibling: "I feel as if there were five of us. The fifth one was art. It usually hung on walls and lacked arms and legs, but it was whiny and demanding. I didn't always appreciate it. This is the Northwest. Our friends went camping. We didn't camp. We had art" (March 4, 1999). Despite -- or because of -- such sentiments, all four Wright children became art collectors as adults.
In his 1999 essay, "Our Lives As Collectors," Bagley Wright described one of many confrontations between his four children and their fifth demanding "sibling": "We acquired a [George] Segal, a sculpture of a naked woman on a bed, putting on her panties. Installed in our basement, it proved a source of embarrassment to our children. They wanted their parents to be like their friends' parents, but, on the evidence of the Segal and the odd-looking things on our walls, reluctantly came to accept that we were not" (p. 16). Wright adds with dark humor, "Collectors could become celebrities in New York. In Seattle, particularly if they collected the kind of art we did, they could become pariahs" (p.19).
Wright Family Fund and Wright Exhibition Space
In 1996, Bagley Wright created the Bagley Wright Family Fund, a private foundation to benefit Northwest cultural causes. Wright managed the foundation from an (externally) modest building at 407 Dexter Avenue N that also housed the Wright Exhibition Space, a 4,000-square-foot private gallery where Virginia Wright mounted art exhibitions drawn from their collection and other Seattle collections.
Bagley Wright described the rationale behind the Wright Fund to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "Government support for the arts is drying up. The private sector has to do more" (March 10, 1996). Wright established the fund with a gift of $20 million, planning to give distribute $1 million each year for capitol projects and endowments. Additionally, $25,000 was allotted yearly to bring a poet or writer of international stature to Seattle for a public lecture, and $25,000 to a Northwest artist whose work that year was determined by the Wright family to be of particular merit.
(A separate entity, the Virginia Wright Fund, was established by her father Prentice Bloedel with $1 million in 1969, to place art in public places. The fund has since donated more than 270 works of art to parks, museums, campuses, and other public places in Western Washington.)
Bagley Wright's office, formerly located on the 41st floor of the Bank of California, was transported to his new one-story space. Other than the loss of his magnificent sweeping view, Wright's office was exactly as it had been: bronze trim, custom cabinetry, and custom furnishings. Canvas covered walls replaced the windows, and glass shelving around the room provided display space for Japanese sculpture, pre-Columbian earthenware, and Pueblo pottery.
"This is the place I look forward to seeing every day, and continuity is one of the great things about it," Wright told The Wall Street Journal. "When I left the [Bank of California Building], I just couldn't bear to leave the office I'd loved so much. So I had it disassembled, piece by piece, and reassembled here. Most people would consider that a profligate gesture. But to me, it was like bringing over our art" (October 23, 2002).
Accolades and Honors
Bagley Wright suffered a heart attack in his office on July 18, 2011, and died at Swedish Medical Center that evening. Tributes immediately appeared on websites of the organizations whose growth he had influenced, and in print, lauding his legacy. "He really planted the first seeds of a vibrant cultural life in Seattle that we all take for granted now," arts consultant Susan Trapnell told The Seattle Times. "He's really been an essential donor and supporter of almost every major arts organization in the city." "He understood," Wright's son and Seattle Art Museum chairman Charlie Wright added, "that a great city had to have great cultural institutions" (July 19, 2011).
Seattle mayor Mike McGinn (b. 1959) issued a statement directing all city buildings to fly their flags at half-staff on Tuesday, July 26, the day of Wright's memorial service. "Bagley Wright's contributions to the civic, artistic, and cultural life of Seattle are historic and enduring. He will always be part of Seattle," McGinn said (Office of the Mayor News Release, July 21, 2011).
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Bagley Wright's memorial at Seattle's St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral drew a full house of Seattle's movers and shakers, cultural leaders, four generations of family members, neighbors, and many whose lives Wright had touched, directly or indirectly, in the course of his long generous commitment to Northwest philanthropy. The Right Reverend Gregory H. Rickel, Bishop of the Diocese of Olympia, officiated.
Speakers included former Seattle Art Museum director Mimi Gates; Wright's business partner Brooks Ragen; and his two sons, Bing Wright and Charlie Wright. They spoke of his lifelong commitment to Seattle's cultural landscape, the prodigious significance his partnership with Virginia Wright had on the region, his forthright opinions, enjoyment of literature, love of golf, and probable pleasure at the city's official commendation of his life and service.
The service included a reading from Ecclesiastes 44:1-15:
"Let us now sing the praises of famous men ... who ruled in their kingdoms, and made a name for themselves by their valor; those who gave counsel because they were intelligent; those who spoke in prophetic oracles; those who led people by their counsels...their name lives on generation after generation."
Deloris Tarzan, longtime art critic for The Seattle Times, expressed the sentiment more secularly: "Many men make good. A few make better. And a very few, such as Bagley Wright ... make best" (April 20, 1981).
Virginia Wright died on February 18, 2020 at age 91, leaving behind her four children, as well as 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. "It was an intense, private passion for her -- the arts and collecting art," her son Charles Bagley Wright III told The Seattle Times. “The great thing is she found a way to channel that passion for the greater benefit of the community in Seattle. She kind of won twice with that one. She was just a remarkable model for the rest of us" ("Virginia Wright, Art Collector ...").